Grapes get ready, workers scramble
If you ever thought that growing grapes was a piece of cake, forget it! Vintage 2015 provides a case in point. You regular readers know that grapes are self-pollinating; that is, they don’t depend on bees or insects to help out with propagation. But this means that successful pollination is very dependent on weather conditions. If you get cold foggy days, rain, wind, or even days that are too hot at bloom time when the tiny white blossoms are on the young grapes, you can get what’s called “shatter.”
Well, that’s exactly what has happened this year. Cold foggy days in June and, no surprise, very irregular pollination, and bunches with lots of vacant spots where little grapes should be. Son John thinks we may have lost about a third of this year’s Sauvignon Blanc. Quite a blow to the bottom line.
Veraison has begun
The good news is that this year’s grape crop, while reduced, is coming along nicely and has reached veraison – a French word that literally means “getting ready” – as in, the grapes are getting ready for harvest. At veraison, the whole vine mobilizes all its resources to get its grapes mature. It seems like such a well-organized program that I imagine some big, mid-July grapevine resource committee meeting.
Grapes that started out as small, hard, openly spread, emerald berries have now achieved “bunch closure,” (when all the individual grapes in the bunch are touching). The photosynthesis factory – the process of combining sun and water to produce sugars – has kicked into high gear, and will soon turn hard, opaque Sauvignon Blanc berries into the beautiful, translucent gold/green grapes that have delighted me forever.
The roots are instructed to grow deeper to find more water. The leaves are instructed to consume less water, with some leaves already showing fall color. New vine growth is stopped. Energy that previously went to growing foliage suddenly diverts to sugar production, sweetening grapes. It’s a coordinated, total vine project. For that matter all the ranch personnel are drawn into this project. I was in the army for a number of years; it’s as if we were doing all this extra work for a visiting General. Here, the vines are doing all the work in preparation for the critical review of our visiting winemaker as harvest time draws closer.
In the 40 years we have been running this ranch, it never seemed possible that we could have a labor shortage. Workers were able to get across the border, and with their honest, hard work send enough money back to their families in Mexico to afford to put their kids in school and work toward a better life for coming generations. The American Dream.
This year, however, our foreman Chuy has been running the ranch with 60 to 70 percent of the men he normally has for his vineyard crew. For all sorts of reasons there are not enough men coming across the border looking for work. Economic conditions in both Mexico and the U.S. have improved so there are more jobs at home. Regulations and border security also are tighter, driving up the fee for a “Coyote” to smuggle you across – rumored now to be in the neighborhood of $7,000 per person.
There is a lot of important vineyard work to be done – tucking of vine canes beneath trellis wires, de-leafing, tying and removing extra canes. To grow great wine grapes, the foliage must be thinned so that each bunch gets the right amount of sun and air flow.
At the start of July, the vineyard was downright unkempt with all this foliage work to be done. To assure the quality of the coming harvest, Chuy stepped up and hired 20 extra men from the San Joaquin Valley for two weeks. The excess vine foliage has now been cleared and John can get his tractor in to remove the remaining weeds so that all the vineyard’s resources can be devoted to providing Vintage 2015 an open road to quality and fine flavors.
New Sauterne vineyard is taking root
With all this mix of work and problem solving I have forgotten to mention one of our happiest new projects – the new vineyard section where we are growing grapes that will enable us to make Sauterne in two or three years. To me this small (600-vine) project is a true triumph of optimism and fun. Sometime in the next six months we will begin to graft the rootstocks now growing here with budwood from the famous French Bordeaux Sauterne maker, Chateaux d’Yquem.
Trying to grow grapes for Sauterne wine is equivalent to the Ph.D. level of grape growing and winemaking. Growing the grapes requires the introduction and culture of a benign fungus called Botrytis cinarea, often called the Noble Rot, on the grapes. In our present 600-vine plot, we have installed misters so we can encourage Noble Rot by keeping the ripening grapes moist. It is often into October before the grapes are ready to harvest, and yields can be painfully small. But our terroir and our success over the past 30 years with Sauvignon Blanc (one of the ordinary sources for Sauterne) is evidence that we have the skills and raw materials to produce a world class Sauterne.
You readers can grin, but this 94-year-old grower takes his ATV and goes out in the vineyard almost every afternoon to visit these small and courageous new members of our vine family.